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    Saturday, January 28, 2023

    No beer, but plenty of fun for Collins, Roche in Qatar

    There is something ironic, if not downright comical, about the bar owner willfully spending 10 days in a dry country.

    Picture it: Leo Roche, a man who owns three local gin mills and has heard varying refrains from his own customers mirroring what the Ecuador fans howled during the first game of the World Cup – “queremos cerveza” (we want beer) – will be a bit parched himself in Qatar for the next week or so.

    But then when you love soccer the way Bogie loved Bacall …

    “Listen,” Roche was saying from Mystic before he left for Qatar over the weekend, “you know, you'd like a couple of beers over there. But just to be a part of the world coming together … ”

    Roche, the ever-entertaining owner of the Harp & Hound, Brazen Hen and Black Sheep, has traveled with his pal Roy Collins to the other side of the world – making arrangements six months in advance – to watch the world’s biggest soccer event.

    Roche arrived Sunday in Doha and watched Monday as the U.S. tied Wales. Collins arrives Wednesday and will join Roche for U.S. vs. England the day after Thanksgiving.

    “I decided that if the U.S. qualified for the World Cup, I'd go over,” Roche said. “Then when England got in, Roy was in, too.”

    Ah, the best laid plans, though. Turns out Qatar, a small country with Saudi Arabia to the south, water around three sides and mondo money, is the gated community of middle eastern countries.

    “You have to apply for tickets. It’s actually very strict to get into Qatar,” Roche said. “If you do get a ticket, and it’s done kind of randomly, you're given a number and that number actually dictates you're getting flights and accommodation in the country. So if you have no ticket, you just cannot fly over to Qatar during the World Cup and get in.”

    Collins, who attended the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, hadn’t planned on traveling to Qatar, what with airline tickets at about $2,500 apiece.

    “Leo got to my girlfriend. And he goes, ‘listen, Roy needs to come with me.’” Collins said. “So she bought my ticket as a Christmas present.”

    They’re quite the pair, Roche and Collins, considering how they’re supposed to hate each other. No, really. Roche, of proud Irish descent, still has a brogue. Collins, a native of England, says “toe-MAH-toe,” not “toe-MAY-toe.” It’s no secret that the English and Irish aren’t fond of exchanging porridge recipes.

    And yet they are great friends.

    “I’m rooting for the U.S. It’s my adopted country. I'm a US citizen,” Roche said. “When the U.S, plays England, he’s gonna wear that (the official jersey top of England) and I'm wearing this (a U.S. jersey). I have a lot of stuff going against me. Number one, I got the American jersey. And number two, I got an Irish accent.”

    Roche and Collins’ absence will be noted at the Harp, the Mystic tavern that purports itself, per a big sign out front, to be “drinking consultants.” The Harp has been the home office for several memorable World Cup watch parties in recent years.

    In 2010 when the U.S. advanced, beers were flowing and the crowd was overflowing for U.S. vs. Ghana in the round of 16. Former Fitch High soccer player Pat Grater watched the match draped in Old Glory and former Ledyard player Pat Edgecomb wore his Capt. America suit. (And hat.)

    Edgecomb even delivered an immortal, soccer-esque protest above the din, yelling at the referee, “are you bleeping kidding me, sir?”

    During the 2018 World Cup, England advanced and was playing Sweden in the knockout round. Harp manager (and proud Irishman) Alan Sheehan arrived wearing full Sweden colors – yellow – looking like a Chiquita Banana.

    Maybe the best moment came during a morning session once when a Day photographer arrived to patrons who were supposed to be at work all but diving under tables to avoid getting their picture in the paper.

    It’s very likely the entertainment value will rise as the tournament progresses. Which, Collins hopes, will feature the U.S. for game-growing purposes.

    “It would be nice to get the U.S. into the next stages because then the interest in this country remains,” said Collins, the International Soccer Schools Program Manager for Everton and a local soccer referee. “If we get knocked out then we lose a bit of interest. There's a core of people that will love it, because it's soccer. And they'll watch every game. But it’s the other core, the casual fan, that we need. They'll watch it if the stays in it.”

    This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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